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Richard Shimooka: Ukraine perseveres as Russia bombs civilian targets

Commentary

The past few weeks have seen a concerted campaign by the Russian Federation against largely civilian targets, including the targeting of power systems and other basic utilities to rob the civilian populace of basic necessities as the harsh winter looms. The scenes are tragic: surgeries under emergency lighting, children on breathing-aid machines plugged into emergency power locations, people lined up in freezing weather for water. 

The anti-infrastructure campaign has parallels to previous military campaigns. Essentially, the strategy of strategic bombing harkens back to the Second World War. The methods may look different since Russia is largely relying on its limited stocks of long-range cruise missiles and drones to pursue this approach. However, that’s largely the result of the tactical situation over Ukraine: Russia would otherwise suffer unsustainable losses to its air force if it attempted any other approach.

Russia’s application of this strategy is one largely borne out of necessity—its armies are in a poor state after successive defeats east of Kharkiv and in Kherson, as well as absorbing hundreds of thousands of ill-trained conscripts. While it continues a grinding push in Donetsk province, the relatively limited scale of its efforts there more likely illustrates its much-weakened state. Furthermore, the approaching winter will only further constrain its options. 

Normally, the winter months tend to see a slowdown of combat operations. But this change in operational tempo will disproportionally affect less well-prepared units, with newly mobilized Russian soldiers being particularly vulnerable. It might be spring at the earliest that Russia’s army could reconstitute itself to a sufficient degree to launch limited offensives, but it is hard to imagine such a force being able to win decisively against the Ukrainian military. 

With Putin’s ability to win on the ground no longer feasible, aerial bombing is really the last potentially war-winning tool available to him. But what are its prospects? 

The use of strategic bombing has remained a highly controversial and contested topic among academics, policy-makers, and strategists. The ethics and morality of strategic bombing pose an essential question for democratic states at war, where perpetrating gross human rights abuses can quickly undermine support at home and the potential for victory in the field.

Yet, such concerns are of little to no relevance to Putin’s authoritarian regime, which has frequently employed terror against the Ukrainian population, as civilian massacres in Bucha, Izyum, and elsewhere amply illustrate. The Kremlin is also no stranger to indiscriminate carpet bombing for terror purposes; one only needs to look at its actions against Mariupol earlier in the spring, as well as its actions during the Syria conflict and in Chechnya. 

Historically, however, strategies aimed at punishing or compelling an opposing side to give up have proven to be the least effective approach. The Royal Air Force attempted something similar during the Second World War, known as the “de-housing strategy”—essentially an effort to break the morale of the German people either by killing or destroying their homes. It was largely ineffectual at its stated objectives: even with most German cities half-destroyed, their population’s morale never really wavered. 

The reality is that societies are highly resilient and such attacks are unlikely to work, even against unpopular totalitarian governments—to say nothing about a popular resistance government. The Ukrainian people have demonstrated their resolve to persevere over Russia over the past 10 months, and these new predations are unlikely to alter their calculus. 

Yet attacking cities may offer other benefits aside from simply coercing a given population. For instance, the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign against Germany forced the Nazi regime to shift a staggering amount of its resources to defend its homeland, which in turn likely hastened its overall defeat. 

Similarly, the attacks on Ukraine’s civilian population have forced Kyiv and its backers to divert significant resources to try to shore up its utilities and keep its citizens safe. For example, newly acquired low-altitude air defence systems, which should have been used to support military operations on the front lines, are now being sent to defend cities and critical infrastructure deep inside Ukrainian territory. This may provide additional breathing room that Russia needs to reconstitute its forces over the winter. 

In addition, Russia’s attacks have wreaked further damage to the already shattered Ukrainian economy and prevented any recovery. As with its military, the country’s economy is completely reliant on foreign assistance to keep going. For instance, the head of the IMF last month estimated it required US$4 billion dollars a month to keep Ukraine afloat. While donors have committed to seeing the country through the winter, allied support remains tenuous and could easily fracture. Considering Putin’s long-held views on the political weaknesses of Western states, he may see this as his best chance to avoid a worst-case outcome from the conflict. 

Unfortunately, there is no easy path out of this situation, beyond continuing to support the Ukrainian state through this deal. Putin will search for and exploit every potential weakness to end this conflict on its terms. Canada and other like-minded states must remain stalwart in their support for Ukraine to persevere.

Paul W. Bennett: Are pandemic effects and progressive discipline policies turning classrooms violent?

Commentary

Two and a half years into the pandemic, schools remain unsettled places and are now disrupted spaces. Half of 850 American public school leaders, surveyed in May 2022, reported an increase in classroom disruptions from student misconduct since schools returned to mostly in-person learning. One in three of the group of mostly principals testified to rising tensions and an uptick in student fights or physical attacks. 

Higher levels of violence and disruption are complicating and impeding school initiatives aimed at rebuilding school communities and getting students back on academic track. While concerning student behaviour studies results are surfacing in the United States, Canadian K-12 education remains a “data desert” where evidence of turmoil still has to be pieced together from scattered school-level reports. 

Horrific stories of high schools in crisis capture the news headlines. Regular fights, flagrant drug use, weapons offences, and terrified staff in one troubled Toronto high school, York Memorial, are hard to ignore. Since September 2022, fights happen nearly every day, sometimes multiple fights, and have produced more than 75 health and safety complaints, prompting 15 of the 80 staff to stage a one-day walkout in protest. Merging two rival inner-city schools has created a cauldron of tension and violence, but that’s a worst-case scenario. 

More typical of the pandemic fallout is the Ontario city of London, where its elementary schools provide a barometer of what’s actually happening inside and outside of classrooms. Violent incidents in the Thames Valley District School Board’s 154 elementary schools more than doubled to 900 in October 2022, compared to some 400 in June of last year. 

What’s most troubling is that many episodes of student-on-student violence go unreported and it’s really a sign of the turmoil that runs deeper in school culture. Whole classes are evacuated to isolate and subdue angry or frustrated students acting out in school. Elementary parents complain about rampant violence in younger grades and overwhelmed staff unable to curb the violence or provide support or protection for children.  

The local teachers’ union and the odd brave teacher are speaking out of school. One Grade 8 teacher, identified only as “Tom,” blamed a board discipline policy that is not only “unclear and confusing,” but paves the way for students to re-offend. “There is zero accountability,” he told CBC News London Morning, hiding his identity out of fear of possible consequences. 

Nor is it confined to elementary schools. For the past two years, a few London city high schools have been in near-constant turmoil. Local police reported making 28 calls to one London high school, Saunders Secondary School, from October 2021 to April 22 to break up fights, respond to mental health issues, or investigate assaults, property damage, thefts, and other incidents. Two 16-year-old boys were stabbed in September near A.B. Lucas Secondary School and more recently, in late November, students described a frantic and bloody scene at H.B. Beal SS after a teen girl stabbed another over lunchtime in the cafeteria. 

School districts like Ontario’s TVDSB were unprepared for the rising incidence of violence and the near-constant problem of “low-level disruptions” besetting classrooms. The Ontario school board is typical of most of the 72 districts in the province. Faced with repeated incidents and intense media scrutiny, TVDSB Director of Education Mark Fisher has declined comment or instructed senior school officials to either defend existing ‘’progressive discipline” policy or assign blame to “what’s happening in communities” following the pandemic. 

After having implemented school-wide positive, preventive student behaviour policies over the past fifteen years or so, school principals and classroom teachers have been deprived of traditional deterrents—office reports, suspensions, and, in some extreme cases, expulsions. Integrating most students with complex needs into regular classrooms, in the midst of the turmoil and with totally inadequate resource supports, has merely compounded the problems. 

Current student behaviour policy dates back to April 2007 in Ontario when former premier, then education minister, Kathleen Wynne (2006-2010), abandoned the “zero tolerance” approach to curbing bullying. Heeding the advice and counsel of her deputy minister, Ben Levin, Wynne sought to curtail the high incidence of suspensions, which were found to be disproportionately affecting students from marginalized or disadvantaged communities. 

Positive Emotional Behaviour Supports approaches, introduced since 2007 in Ontario and elsewhere across North America, have dramatically reduced the use of suspensions and resulted in the virtual elimination of expulsions, the last resort in school discipline. Curbing the use of sanctions has meant keeping students in school is now the priority, often through the expanded use of “time-out” rooms, Individual Education Plans, restorative justice remedies, and “social promotion” to the next grade. 

The official Ontario school suspension data tell the story across the system with some 2 million students. In 2007-08, 94,386 Ontario students were listed as “suspensions” (4.32 percent of all students) and 996 were reported as “expulsions” (0.05 percent). By 2019-20, the last year reported, total suspensions were down to 46,990 (2.21 percent) and only 245 students were recorded as “expulsions” (0.01 percent). 

The reported data for TVDSB has suspensions dropping from 4,918 (5.86 percent) to 3,275 (3.91 percent) but looks totally unreliable for “expulsions.” The board reported less than 10 expulsions a year from 2007-08 to 2016-17, then slowly rising each year to 15 in 2019-20 before the pandemic. Those figures for expulsions need to be audited for accuracy. 

Speaking truth to power in K-12 education can be exceedingly frustrating because it’s usually met with a wall of silence. TVDSB Grade 8 teacher “Tom” is a brave soul who speaks for many frontline teachers with their heads down, toughing it out and left to deal with the problem on their own, day in and day out, in post-pandemic school closure times.

Progressive student behaviour approaches are now unequal to the challenge, according to classroom teachers and engaged parents. Violent, disruptive, and disrespectful students are free, in far too many schools, to erode learning and sustain the turmoil with impunity.

Student behaviour policy has swung too far along the pendulum and, in the words of local  Elementary Federation of Ontario president Craig Smith, moved from “zero tolerance” to “one of almost complete latitude.” The current approach is anything but “progressive” if it’s allowing violence and low-level disruptions to flourish in elementary and secondary schools.